Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Logic of Racial Expectations: Skip Gates and the Cambridge Police

The folks I follow on Twitter (yeah, I’m still experimenting with that seemingly useless social networking tool) have been raging over the past day and a half about Skip Gates’s recent altercation with the Cambridge Police Department, an altercation that began in his own home, spilled out onto his front porch, and eventually landed the iconic Harvard professor in jail.

I’m hunkered down at home right now trying to finish a short “afterword” for the paperback edition of my most recent book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, but I just wanted to take a quick break to weigh-in on the entire affair.

At this point, I’m sure that most interested parties have gotten the details: the phoned-in tip about two Black men apparently breaking into a Cambridge home, the cop who arrives to confront Gates, already safely in his living room despite a jammed front door, and then Gates allegedly lighting into said officer, chalking the indignity of being asked for ID in his own home up to the logic of racialized expectations, an officer being suspicious for no good reason. Because “I’m a black man in America’‘ is how Gates supposedly put it. Of course, the cop would probably maintain that race had nothing to do with it.

Two quick ironies before I get back to work.

First, the book for which I’m currently writing that aforementioned “afterword” tries to explain just how such a scenario could have gone down in the first place. It attempts to connect dots between Gatesian accusations (of race-thinking) and a cop’s defense (of colorblindness and racial neutrality).

The Gates exchange isn’t really all that very different (in some ways) from the cases I highlight in my book (for instance, comedian Dave Chappelle walking out on his successful TV show or Cynthia McKinney accusing a DC officer of cloaked racial bias).

So, I’m currently working on the paperback edition of a book that is an extended riff on just how such a blow-up between Gates and the officer could have happened in the first place. And I try to explain why Gates could have been angry enough to scream at the officer (as the police report claims) instead of just shrugging it off and going on about his business (or even being thankful to the cop for checking on his place). Gates’s response isn’t crazy or irrational. It is a direct byproduct of America’s relatively recent racial successes.

The second irony: Gates was generous enough to write a blurb for the dust-jacket of the hardcover version of Racial Paranoia, which only makes me feel that much more invested in getting the word out about its argument.
Readers don’t have to agree with my conclusions, but I do believe that my claims provide some useful terms for any potentially productive conversation about the reconfigured realities of race in a supposedly post-racial world.

As an aside, I remember my first day up in Cambridge, MA. Almost a decade ago now. I had defended my dissertation the morning before, rented a U-haul, and drove myself (along with all my earthly belongings) some four hours north from Harlem, New York, to Everett Street, just across from Harvard Law School. I was about to spend my next three years in Cambridge on a postdoctoral fellowship. But the truck had only been parked in front of the building for a couple of hours on moving day when a well-meaning pedestrian bounded up to it, a red-headed white woman in her twenties, and asked me how much I charged to move people. (She actually walked right past the person helping me, a friend of mine who happened to be white, and asked me her query. My assumption was that she thought he was moving in and that I was the hired help. Of course, that might not have been the case at all. But such ambiguities, I argue in the book, have very real existential value in questions about race in a politically corrected world. Looking for the iron-clad ground of certainty in contemporary discussions about race/racism sometimes means setting yourself up for failure.) I told the woman that I was moving myself into my own apartment and that I wasn’t actually a professional mover. She apologized and headed up the street, but a logic of racial expectations, similar to the one Gates negotiated yesterday, had probably overdetermined that little Cambridge exchange, too. (And, as my potential critics would add, from both sides.)


Lil' Sis said...

well said, Dr. Jackson!

Invisman52 said...

This case has definitely made me want to get to your book--especially now that it is coming out in paper. (Sorry, poor grad student. Actually, the guy at Stanford who you had dinner with a few months ago after your talk on Black Hebrews. Great talk, great dinner. Oh, great advice. I am digging the info I am finding about postdocs.) Hope you come back out to Palo Alto soon.

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